How music is being used to treat autism

Clinicians in Detroit have seen that for people with autism, music speaks louder than words and improvised music can help them express emotion effectively

On a Wednesday afternoon at Beaumont hospital in Royal Oak, on the outskirts of Detroit, a blind 25-year-old man with autism plays piano near the hospital entrance. Doctors, patients, nurses and families crowd around Lance Vardon, who is seated at a grand piano playing Bachs Prelude in C Major.

Three days a week, the same group gathers around the grand piano during their lunch hour. Vardon launches into Journeys Dont Stop Believing with his music therapist Lisa Barnett, who has worked with the young man for 16 years. Seated together at the grand piano, Vardon plays one hand of keys and Barnett, who sings, plays the other. The small crowd soon doubles in size.

For Vardon, who was born to deaf parents, music speaks louder than words. Diagnosed with autism at age seven, he has a severe case with limited verbal communication. He can answer yes or no, but he cant verbalize his feelings. Barnett has worked with him to increase his ability to socialize and be more independent. Thats the aim of music therapy: to reach goals, which can be physical, emotional or cognitive, for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which leads to difficulty communicating and forming relationships.

Clinicians have observed that people with autism can use improvised music to express emotion effectively. According to preliminary research not yet published, Edward Roth, director and professor of music therapy at Western Michigan University, says children who were put into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while improvising or listening to someone improvise music showed activity in the parts of the brain involved with communication.

If you were to look at those brains, you couldnt tell the difference between people who were interacting through music and people who were interacting verbally, he says. Theyre having a nonverbal discussion through music and these arent musicians, these are musically naive children.

Another test involved taking blood from college students before and after singing both improvised and composed music. Results for composed music showed a decrease in stress hormones, and results for improvised music showed a decrease in stress hormones and an increase in oxytocin, which is thought to be a marker of bonding and trust. According to the study, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the results indicate that group singing reduces stress and arousal and induces social flow in participants.

The social aspect of creative arts therapies such as music are highly beneficial for disabled children and young adults. At Michigan State University, 4th Wall Theatre Company which has classes all over the state puts on theater programs that include singing, dancing and acting.

One participant, 21-year-old Christopher Hibbs, has pervasive developmental disorder on the autism spectrum and wants to be a professional actor. His mother Martha says the class has helped him come out of his shell. It brings kids joy and shows them what they can do, she says. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. Now several programs in, Hibbs has become more aware of other people and their disabilities, which has helped him learn empathy. (Areas of the brain associated with empathy showed activity in the fMRI tests, too.)

Katie Mann, co-founder of 4th Wall, leads a theater class at Michigan State University. Photograph: David Quang Pham

Like Hibbs, Vardon has come a long way. The teaching process is long and laborious, according to Barnett: she sings into a cassette tape recorder, which Vardon then plays back, learning through imitation. Songs can take months to learn. He wont respond to MP3s, either: only cassette tapes recorded via an old-fashioned karaoke machine. His favorite music to play is new age, baroque and Disney. Recently, he learned City of Stars from La La Land, but his go-to is Leonard Cohens Hallelujah. The strongest suit for children with autism is visual, so Vardon learns with braille books that have instructions; step-by-step structure is essential for those with autism.

Hes a role model for other kids, says Barnett, who received a degree in music therapy from Michigan State University and has a company called Songs to Grow On that works with clients from the age of seven through their late 50s, both disabled and able-bodied. Hes one of the reasons I keep doing this every day, because hes a remarkable human being. In high school, Vardon played with his school orchestra before playing the prestigious Carnegie Hall.

Vardon communicates with his parents through finger spelling, which is signing letters into the palms of hands. Judy and Larry cant hear the music their son plays, but they can see it and feel it. I see people who love music and theyre my ear and my sound, says Judy Vardon, who speaks in sign language translated by her 27-year-old son, Stefan. People used to walk away and now they come up to us. Were different, but were not going to bite you.

In 2005, a year after the family appeared on ABCs Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Stevie Wonder came knocking on their door. Wonder had a unique connection with Vardon: he gave him a guitar and they hung out for hours. I know Lance isnt a world-famous musician, but I feel proud, Judy says. Stevie is Motown.

It was clear early on that Vardon loved music. At eight months old, Vardon played with a toy piano in the bathtub. He then became fascinated with wind chimes. He was so drawn to the sound that he began to wander outside looking for them. One day, at the age of six, he got extremely upset and his parents couldnt figure out why. It turns out one of the wind chimes was missing and he could sense its absence.

I remember we were in a restaurant when we were little everyone was looking at us: Lance was copying Bing Cosbys voice and singing along to White Christmas, recalls Stefan Vardon. I realized he had some sort of talent with music, and we encouraged him. Vardon also knows three languages English, sign language and Spanish and is an avid reader. He understands so much, Barnett says. He just cant verbalize it.

Vardon is considered to be in an adult transition program, which helps prepare young adults for independent lives. His volunteer work at Beaumont is part of that program. But when he turns 26, hell no longer qualify for special needs services provided by the state of Michigan, which is the only state in the country to provide services up to that age. With cuts and constant changes in funding for music therapy, Barnett isnt sure what will happen because shell no longer be funded through the school district to be at the hospital. Vardons musical future will rest in the hands of his parents and outside organizations.

This should be his theme song, jokes Barnett, nearing the end of Dont Stop Believing. You guys like Journey? she asks the crowd, urging them to sing along. Were gonna rock out now!

Vardon, face scrunched up in concentration, brings the song to a close except for the very last note. Finish the song, Lance! Barnett exclaims. His fingers hover over the keys for a brief moment before dropping them down in a grand conclusion. Vardon smiles, leans back and gets ready to shake hands with the line of admirers waiting to tell him: Thank you.

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